Editor’s Note: The Soviet-influenced Afghan government of the period took the writer’s father from her home when she was 11 years old, and she never saw him again. This is Part One of what she knows of his childhood.
My father Mohammad Shah was born into a wealthy family. His father was a landowner and businessman who imported and exported goods between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His mother was a very clever woman who led jirgas (tribal assemblies of elders). Shah, as he was known, was the oldest of five siblings. His father wanted his help in business, and gave him many responsibilities.
But Shah was interested in books and poetry. Of course his businessman-father was totally against books. At age nine, Shah began seeking permission to go to the mosque for prayers, and once there, he asked the mullahs to teach him reading. At that time, 80 years ago, schools were not common in Afghanistan. There were a few madrassas (Islamic schools) across the country, but no schools in small provinces.
When his father found out Shah was learning reading, he got angry and said, “Come on son! Don’t waste your time and your brain. Education means nothing. If you work hard and earn money, you will be famous and rich and have a better future.” Shah couldn’t argue with his father, so he agreed. But no one could change his mind. He continued to study in the mosque, even as he helped his father with trading trips to and from Peshawar, Pakistan.
When Shah was a skinny boy of just 11 years there was a day when everything went wrong. Shah was helping his father pack goods onto the camels. One of the camels stood up, and the goods fell off. Shah’s father yelled at him “You stupid! I told you a thousand times to concentrate on business, not books. You never followed my orders.”
“But Father—” Shah said.
“Don’t argue with me!” his father shouted. “I know you, you shameless and lazy boy.”
Shah said: “I am not lazy.”
Suddenly his father grabbed a stone and ran toward him, yelling, “I will kill you. I don’t need a lazy son like you!” Shah backed up and then started running. His father chased him. Without looking back, Shah kept running. His father followed, yelling: “I will kill you, I hate you!”
After 10 or 15 minutes, Shah realized he didn’t hear his father’s voice. He slowed and looked back. He couldn’t see his father. He put his hands on his knees, breathing very fast. He was glad his father wasn’t following him anymore, but he was also worried. “What shall I do? If I go back home, my father will punish me and never let me return to the mosque. If I don’t go home, where shall I go? My God, where shall I go?” He continued walking, he didn’t know where. After a few hours, he reached Charikar, a northern city at the gateway of the Panjshir Valley. He paused by a chaikhana (a teahouse). He stared at the customers enjoying tea and cookies. His mouth was dry and he was hungry and tired.
After a while, an old man sitting in the teahouse called to Shah, gesturing for him to approach. Shah was not sure what to do. Again the old man called: “Come, young man, come here.” Shah walked slowly toward him. “Who are you?” the old man asked.
“Shah. Mohammad Shah.”
“Where do you come from? Whose son are you?” Shah didn’t want to answer because his father was well known. The old man asked again: “Are you alone?”
“Where is your father?”
Shah said: “I am alone. I don’t have anyone.”
The old man was surprised. “Are you sure? Don’t you have anyone? What about your mother?” Shah didn’t know what to say. The old man said: “Oh Allah, look at this young good-looking boy. He doesn’t have anyone. May Allah bless you, young man. Where are you sleeping? Who washes your clothes?” Shah just looked at the ground, playing with stones with his foot. The old man said: “Come on, young boy, have some cookies.” He called to the waiter: “Bring tea and cookies for this young boy.”
Shah was eager to have his tea. He sat next to the old man. While he drank his tea, the old man stared at him. “Poor boy. Look at his bright eyes and shiny face. Oh dear, you are so lost and lonely.”
Shah said: “Baba, it has been decided by Allah. Prophet Mohammad, PBUH, was younger than me when he lost his parent. But he was not lost. He found his way. He has millions of followers. Even after 1,300 years, all Muslims are faithful to him. He strengthens pillars of Islam all over the world.”
The old man was surprised by the way Shah explained the Prophet’s life. “How do you know this?” Shah mentioned a few books he’d read. “So you read at this age?” the old man asked, amazed.
“Yes, I go every day to the mosque, and after prayers the mullah teaches me how to read.”
“I know how to help you,” the old man said. “I will take you to the mosque. The mullah emam (priest) is my friend. You can get an education there. You are very smart. I am sure you will be one the most famous people on earth. Everyone will recognize you all over the world. You will have a bright future.”
The old man and Shah walked toward the mosque. On the way, the man didn’t say a single word. Shah was quiet too. After the long walk, they reached a small mosque with a bigger yard for prayers. An old man sat on a prayer cloth in the yard, his head bowed. It was not possible to see his face because he wore a big white turban, as well as long white clothes. He held prayer beads in his hands. When the old man reached the mullah, he greeted him: “Asalamu Allaikom, Mawlawi sahib.”
The mullah answered: “Allaikom Asalam. Who?” He didn’t complete his sentence, just asked Who? Shah wondered why the mullah did not move his head or look at them.
“It is me, Mullah Rahim from Charikar. Mullah Sahib, how are you?”
“Thanks Allah, fine. Tell me, who is with you?”
“Mullah sahib,” the old man said, “I met a young boy who doesn’t have any family. He needs accommodation and since he is very clever, he will appreciate if you can kindly accept him as your student.”
After a short silence, the mullah moved his hand to the right as if he were looking for something. “Where? Where is he?”
The old man led Shah to the mullah, who touched his arm, his shoulder, his head, and then read a part of the Qu’ran. After that he said: “Bless you, young boy. How old are you?”
“Why do you want to live in a mosque?”
“It was Allah’s decision,” Shah said.
“Hmmm.” The mullah turned to head toward Shah. “Masha Allah (“May Allah bless you”). Very clever, you are a clever boy.” When he turned his head, Shah saw at last that the mullah was blind. He asked, “What is your name?”
“Hmmm. Shah means king, and you will be the king of hearts. Everyone will love you, and your family will regret losing you. You are an asset. Clever children are the treasure of their families and the country.”
Shah was shocked. How did the mullah know that he had a family? He never found out, because he never asked.
To be continued…